I’m all about health, happiness, longevity, and increasing your health span. The phrase “health span” refers to the number of years that you live in good health, rather than the 20% of those years that most of us live in poor health. How do we live a life in good health as opposed to poor? We do it by creating and sticking to healthy behaviors.
Here are my “top ten” recommendations for living in good health:
1. Practice — yes, practice gratitude
I’ve long advised that people follow my GEICO mnemonic:
G = Gratitude
E = Enthusiasm
I = Interpretive style (ways of anticipating or interpreting circumstances)
C = Curiosity
O = Optimism
Gratitude comes first because it’s the jump-start to all the others. When you start from a place of feeling and being grateful, you’ll naturally have more enthusiasm, anticipate better outcomes, experience the joy of curiosity, and feel inherently more optimistic.
I recommend writing nightly in a gratitude journal or what I like to call a “GEICO” journal. Just write down a few thoughts before going to bed, turn off the TV, or disconnect from your cell phone anytime during the day and take just five minutes to reflect on what you’re grateful for. This practice truly yields results and sets the stage for all my other recommended healthy behaviors.
2. Manage any diseases you have
As a psychiatrist, of course, the diseases I help you manage would be depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and ADHD. Those are the biggies. There are all kinds of transdiagnostic symptoms that go along with those diseases: usually mood, energy, anxiousness, fretfulness, attention, concentration, impulsivity, and compulsivity. And then, of course, the additional symptoms of focus, motivation, joy, and pursuit of happiness. If you experience challenges with any of these symptoms, seek guidance from someone who can help you manage symptoms and diseases.
Get your eight hours of sleep. There are both natural and prescription strategies that work in combination to help you achieve this healthy level of sleep. An essential component of good sleep is to also be able to wake up in the morning feeling rested and ready to take on the day.
4. Take your measurements
What does that mean? Well, many of the psychoneuroimmunological perturbations that cause symptoms, prevent you from being healthy, and may affect your longevity and health span, are measurable and correctable. Correctable is the word to focus on here. We can’t correct these things if we don’t measure them and understand your specific situation. So that’s why I measure a lot of neurotransmitters, in addition to the usual blood work, as well as your hormones, including your adrenal hormones and output. (Integrative Psychiatry offers many tests you can order online to start gaining an understanding of where your body is at: learn more here.)
5. Walk it off
Get your 10,000 steps in or something equivalent to that. I’m a big fan of exercise. Just keep moving.
6. Eat your vegetables
Follow a good, balanced diet that incorporates the abundance and variety of earth-grown foods. It doesn’t matter whether you’re paleo, Mediterranean, DASH, whatever. Stick to some cohesive, sustainable, reproducible diet and you’re probably going to do well.
Two strategies I recommend are a) don’t ever let your blood sugar spike, and b) avoid or at least minimize those proteins that are likely to exacerbate immune reaction, particularly red meat and —sorry — gluten. (Good luck with that, but it is possible!)
7. Make new friends and keep the old ones
Why is this important? An expanding social network after the age of 50 correlates with health, happiness, and longevity. And, plus, friends are fun!
8. Slow down
We all move too fast. The French have a wise saying, “It is the pace that kills.” And, if you’ve ever spent any time in France or with a French person, you’ll know they place a high emphasis on slowing down throughout the day, throughout the week, and throughout the year. (Think leisurely lunches, non-working weekends, and ample vacation time.)
Even William James, the father of modern American psychology, at least once said, “It is neither the nature nor the amount of our work that leads to our nervous breakdowns, but rather this kind of crazy notion that we don’t have enough time.” So, slow down, pace yourselves. You’ve got enough time (if you take care of yourself!)
9. Spend time alone
I call this solitary refinement. Get used to spending some quality time alone with yourself. Learn to quit running from your own thoughts and feelings. You don’t have to fix them. You don’t have to act on them. You just have to sit with them, acknowledge them, let yourself feel what you’re feeling. Avoiding spending time alone because we’re afraid of our thoughts and feelings is what leads to many of our bad habits.
“I live in that solitude, which is painful in youth, but delicious in the years of maturity“
– Albert Einstein
10. Take action.
You can read about all the right steps, you can think about writing a journal or taking a walk. You can plan to stay more connected to loved ones. But none of that is the same as actually doing it.
“Unto the Breach.” This is a quotation from Kay Jamison, a psychiatrist who suffered from bipolar disorder. She wrote a book, a moving and quite a poignant book called “Night Falls Fast,” about her descent into depression. One line from her book emphasizes the absolute necessity of taking action:
“The breach between what we know and what we do is lethal.”
So, ask yourself: What’s keeping you from acting on that knowledge that you possess but don’t uniformly or routinely enact?
Maybe you don’t know the answer or have tried so many times and been unable to stick to regular routines that help you stay healthy mentally and physically. That’s when you might want to talk to somebody: a health coach, a clergy, a friend, a professional, a therapist, or even a psychiatrist.
So, that’s it. Those are my top ten recommended healthy habits and behaviors. The next step is up to you.